Mental Training for Boxers

Staying disciplined and overcoming fear are necessary abilities in the sport of boxing. Regardless of your skill level, boxers endure both physical and mental fatigue, and face a huge amount of stress before a fight. Although boxing is extremely physical, the mental aspect of the sport is exhausting and takes time to cope with. This guide discusses fear in boxing, explores how your body responds to fear, and identifies ways to be successful even as fear emerges.

Defining Fear

It’s natural to experience some degree of anxiety before you spar for the first time. Likewise, prior to competition you will be nervous. Most boxers are hit with an array of emotions before entering the ring: The butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling surfaces, your legs feel heavy, and you struggle to think clearly.

Generally speaking, fear stems from apprehension and anxiety toward a future event. In boxing, fear is triggered from the possibility of physical pain and the anguish of defeat.

In fact, fear is an obstacle created by our imagination. Mental barriers are much more difficult to overcome than physical obstacles, though, and they need to be managed effectively so that you can be successful.

“I learned very early on in my practice that while we can lose a fear of a certain thing or situation, we will never get rid of fear completely; it will always be there while we continue to expand. Rather, we learn to recognize and control fear, deeming it a powerful tool that will aid us in our response to confrontation.”

Geoff Thompson: Author and Self-Defense Expert

The Body’s Response

You may have heard of the “fight or flight response,” first described by the famous American physiologist Walter Cannon in 1929. This idea pertains to most animals, and refers to the body and mind’s natural response to danger. In essence, the animal will either approach the issue head on and fight or avoid it and run away. This response is triggered by a general discharge from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

The SNS response triggers many different reactions:

Heart Rate

The most obvious response to stress is an increase in heart rate. A normal heart rate usually ranges between 60 and 80 beats per minute (bpm). During combat your heart rate usually beats slightly over 100 bpm. Under intense stress, though, your heart can reach upwards of 175 bpm. Your goal should be to stay as relaxed as possible, since your body exerts more energy when your heart beats quickly. You cannot afford to waste energy in the ring.


Remarkably, your body heightens necessary senses and diminishes unnecessary senses when faced with the increased stress of combat. Because hearing, taste, and smell are not as necessary during combat, they are basically turned off during a bout. The sense of touch is also diminished greatly during competition, essentially making punches feel much less painful than they would otherwise. Your eyesight is your most important sense while boxing. Your eyes adjust when you’re in the ring: Your pupils dilate in order to provide you with more focused vision. Unfortunately, your eyes are less effective when you’re too stressed out.

Focusing & Reacting

An inability to mentally focus usually accompanies SNS reaction symptoms. Even if you and your coach formulate a detailed game plan, there is a good chance that your strategy goes out the window if you are too nervous. In all likelihood, your mechanics will suffer and your punches will be less technical in a stressful environment.

Additionally, you will have slower reactions in a nerve-racking atmosphere. Your reaction time can take much longer than usual due to your body’s inability to perceive, analyze, and respond clearly.

Overcoming Fear & Anxiety

Without a doubt, familiarity with a given circumstance boosts confidence. You will be less anxious prior to sparring as you become accustomed to the workout over time. You will also be far less nervous about entering the ring as you gain competitive experience. Nervousness will never completely subside, but it needs to be channeled positively.

Amazingly True Story

Evander Holyfield was set to fight the World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight title holder, Mike Tyson, on November 9, 1996. Mike Tyson was known as a vicious opponent throughout the 1990s, and his reputation had Holyfield nervous and tentative. Prior to the match Holyfield calmed himself down by dancing to gospel music. However uncanny, the act subdued his nerves and allowed him to beat Tyson by technical knockout (TKO) in the 11th round.

Proper Preparation

Successful boxers are extremely disciplined and exhibit exemplary work-ethic. Although your trainer can push you during your boxing regimen, he will not wake you up in the morning to run sprints or lift weights. There certainly are days when it would be easier to roll over when the alarm goes off, but world-class fighters always jump out of bed and get to work right away. Likewise, you are alone once you step into the ring. Although your trainer might be standing ringside, he cannot fight your battles.

How Sparring Calms Your Nerves

Decreasing fear and anxiety leading up to a fight really amounts to gaining confidence. Repetition in the gym leads to confidence in the ring. Prior to sparring, you should have a basic understanding of offensive and defensive techniques, and you should feel comfortable defending yourself at a rudimentary level. By practicing offensive and defensive maneuvers on the bags and mitts, you will develop confidence in your abilities and feel less nervous prior to sparring. Instead of hopping into full-speed sparring, make sparring a process by following these steps:

  • Take turns on offense and defense with a training partner.
  • Go slow without the intention of hurting one another.
  • Add punches each session until you both feel comfortable integrating offense and defense simultaneously.

If you are preparing for your first competition, you should frequently spar during training. Although your nerves will certainly rise before and during an actual bout, sparring gives you familiarity with the task at hand. Confidence in your preparation leads to confidence in the ring.

Knowledge of Yourself

You should identify your strengths and weaknesses in training. Shadow boxing gives you a truly fantastic opportunity to review fundamentals and vulnerabilities. Your goal should be to learn something about yourself each day as you shadow box. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses allows you to spar and compete with a more informed approach.

Boxers at the amateur level generally don’t know who they are going to fight until the day of the match, so it’s difficult to prepare for the style of a particular opponent. Varying your sparring partner prepares you for the style of any potential opponent, though. As you spar more often, you will develop confidence and the ability to adapt to any opponent.

A smart boxer is a dangerous boxer. First and foremost, know yourself. If possible, know your opponent as well.


Focus on your breathing when you are in an uneasy, stressful environment. Concentrating on taking slow, controlled breaths can reduce your heart rate. You breathe primarily with your nose during a sparring session or bout, but you should inhale slowly and deeply in your nose and exhale out of your mouth while preparing to enter the ring. Focusing on your breathing also eliminates some of the negative thoughts that can enter your mind as you wait.

Cool Under Pressure

Boxing improves your overall self-confidence, and helps you handle anxiety in any situation outside of the ring. Once you’ve been hit and realize that you’re still alive and well, you will be a less fearful, anxious individual. Likewise, you gain a whole lot of confidence once you feel capable of defending yourself. Many people are not mentally tough enough to enter a ring and match up against an opponent who wants to hurt them. Prepare yourself mentally by training intensely, reflecting on your skills, and controlling your breathing. Manage your fear and channel the fear into positive energy.

As stated above, confidence comes with experience. Most importantly, if you are preparing for your first sparring session or bout, remember to always defend yourself. Keep your hands up and your feet moving!

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